Posts Tagged ‘blogs’

The Glorious Internet: Closer to Dialogue or Further Away?

Remember all those long-ago TV ads that trumpeted the vast promise of the Internet to bring us all together? Apparently, quite the opposite is taking place.

So says a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed by Gregory Rodriguez. A senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Rodriguez writes that “despite all the newfangled ways we’ve developed to communicate across all sorts of boundaries, we’re increasingly deciding to talk, tweet and Facebook with folks who are more or less like ourselves.”

Why? Rodriguez quotes a fascinating insight from Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. With the explosion of diversity in today’s world, Bishop writes, people increasingly have to create their own identities. That’s a lot easier when you draw on support from people like you.

I see this as a good thing. In Western culture, at least, we no longer have a social consensus to tell us who we are (or aren’t). Thank God for that, especially since the consensus defined “normal” in very restrictive ways. But as someone with his own eccentric identity, I have seen how isolating the resultant “who am I?” quest can be. Support from like-minded people is a breath of fresh air, and the Internet has made it easier to find them.

The problem is not that we hang out with like-minded people. The problem comes when we only hang out with like-minded people (or only read their like-minded thinking).

By doing that, we drastically limit the number of worldviews we encounter. Our views can easily become more rigid and dogmatic. We might think the answers to problems are simple when they’re not. Moreover, we start to believe things about people not of our worldview—and those things are often inaccurate.

That may be why, for instance, some LGBT people see all evangelical Christians as homophobic, or why some Anglos see all Mexicans as unpatriotic, or why some Americans fear all Muslims as potential terrorists.  And it makes dialogue difficult.

But what if we expanded the spectrum of places we hang out online? It can do wonders for clearing away preconceptions. As our exploration unfolds, we may realize that “all people in x group” don’t have the same perspective, because this blogger in x group has a different perspective. More often than not, we discover that her perspective is well thought out. Maybe we can find ways to at least respect those opinions, if not actually bridge our divides.

Rodriguez quotes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the value of spending time with “them” and their perspectives. To help reach consensus as an Arizona legislator, she’d invite the warring sides over to her house for home-cooked Mexican food and beer. They’d sit around and shoot the bull. In time, they became friends. This can happen virtually too (OK, minus the edibles).

Will this kind of crossover solve all our problems? Of course not. Differences in opinion and debates over policy will never go away, and neither should they: they can contribute to the forging of better solutions. But we can’t even begin to solve our problems if we’re not talking. And we can’t talk productively unless we see and hear others, especially our “adversaries,” for who they really are. If that means reading as well as, or The Wall Street Journal as well as The New York Times, then that’s what we have to do.

A Defense Mechanism That Thwarts Dialogue

I spend a lot of time reading what you might call “virtual dialogue.” That includes comments to a blog post, discussion threads in an online forum, letters to the editor, and similar material. Lately, I’ve run into a lot of statements like this:

“You are absolutely entitled to your belief.”

“Everyone is free to believe what they want.”

“You’ve got your opinion, I’ve got mine.”

My first thought: of course. Why would anyone—at least in liberal Western democracies—think differently? But if it’s so obvious, why are so many people saying it so often?

I’m wondering if, in part, it’s a defense mechanism: a subtle way of cutting off an emerging dialogue or debate before it gets too uncomfortable. “I can’t see how you believe that, but you know what? This is a free country. You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m entitled to mine.”

That example—essentially, “agreeing to disagree”—worries me. It always sounds so good: by agreeing to disagree, we pledge to respect each other’s opinions and move on. We restore harmony and concord. But all too often, “agreeing to disagree” turns into a tacit agreement never to speak of the issue again. That cuts us off, not only from dialogue that might help us better engage the issue (and the “other side”), but also from a part of the other person. It prevents us from growing in our perspectives.

Certainly there are times when cutting off discussion is the best move: to calm uncontrolled tempers, for instance, or to gather more information, or to take a break from sensory overload. But I think we tend to cut off way too soon. We avoid getting hurt, but we cheat ourselves out of growth too.

What would happen if we hung in there? We might discover entirely new ways to think about an issue. We might see that our perspective is one among many—no more, no less—and that continued dialogue might help us uncover more of the whole picture. We might connect with people we never thought we’d connect with. We might build our relationships, broaden our worldview, even increase our curiosity and thirst for wisdom.

Yes, we might also get hurt. People sometimes play rough out there. So all these benefits come with a cost. Can we afford it?

I think it’s easier to afford if we draw our essential strength from somewhere else. That’s why I believe spirituality holds so much potential for dialogue: as we proceed from a core of strength at the essence of our souls, our sacred cows—or, more specifically, our defense of them—becomes less important. That empowers us to be flexible, to give and take, to listen to the other with attention and vulnerability. We dialogue out of strength, so the hurt—painful though it might be—holds less power to destroy us.

So maybe we seek out that strength. Maybe we push ourselves one more click before resorting to “you’re entitled to your own opinion.” Maybe we get to taste more of the power of dialogue to enrich our lives.